For the Yankees, the idea behind acquiring Anthony Rizzo was sound. A lefty-hitting natural first baseman with an excellent glove (92nd percentile in Outs Above Average) and a track record of hitting for power? By all means.
However, the Rizzo trade is not working out exactly as hoped, simply because he hasn’t been able to be a difference-maker with the stick. The .269/.369/.481 career hitter with the .850 OPS is slashing .254/.352/.420 with a .772 OPS with the Yankees.
For context, he has been an average first sacker in terms of offense during his stay in the Bronx: MLB first basemen have combined for a .777 OPS in 2021. That’s not what the Yankees envisioned after they acquired him. Yes, the prospect cost they paid justified the investment in any case, but the team needs Rizzo to do more damage at the plate.
Since that big first weekend against Miami, Rizzo is hitting .233/.322/.364 with four homers and a 92 wRC+ in 149 plate appearances. After coming off the COVID-19 injured list in mid-August, he has a paltry .713 OPS and three homers in 31 games.
The main problem is that Rizzo isn’t doing much damage on contact, and while the Yankees sure can use his defensive and on-base prowess, they need more thump from him, too. He ranks 113rd out of 134 qualifiers in wOBA on contact, or wOBAcon, at .345. He is 103rd out of 134 in expected wOBA on contact (xwOBAcon) with .351.
What does this mean? Most of Rizzo’s offensive production comes from his ability to take walks. And don’t get me wrong, that ability is a real asset. Walks are great for a team’s offense. But the slugger was expected to provide more… slug.
Hitters such as Adam Frazier, Josh Harrison, Kyle Farmer, Michael A. Taylor, Amed Rosario, Joey Wendle or Josh Rojas inflict more damage on contact than Rizzo has with the Yankees. Even though he has a very high max exit velo (114.2 mph), his hard-hit rate (40.4 percent, in the 47th percentile) and barrel rate (7.5 percent, in the 40th percentile) are middling, at best.
Overall, we can’t say Rizzo has been bad for the Yankees. He oozes confidence, especially with the glove, which is extremely helpful for the rest of the infield. He famously told a still-adjusting-to-third-base Rougned Odor to just throw the ball across the diamond because he would catch everything, and there is value in that. He does catch everything in sight, it seems.
However, if the Yankees insist on starting Rizzo over Luke Voit, he has to hit better. There is just no way around it. The team needs a stable, natural first baseman, yes, but it also needs a middle-of-the-order masher who can help the team produce runs. Voit has shown time and time again that he can be that kind of run-producer, but his defensive abilities are poor.
The thing is, perhaps the Yankees acquired the first baseman as he enters his decline phase. Starting in 2014 and until 2019, Rizzo had a wRC+ of at least 126, every single year. Then 2020 came along and he had a 102 mark, and just when we were ready to chalk it up to the pandemic and the small sample size, he has a 113 wRC+ campaign in 2021.
He is already 32, so he could simply be seeing his power start to slowly erode as he hits the back nine of his career. The Yankees, however, hope he can somehow regain some of that power stroke that made him one of the most dangerous first basemen in the league in the mid-to-late 2010s.